×

“Bernard and Huey” helmer and co-founder of Slamdance Film Festival Dan Mirvish, now behind “18 ½,” knew that making a movie about Watergate would still be “resonant and relevant,” he says. Not just in the U.S., but all over the world.

Focusing on the infamous “18½-minute gap” from a taped conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman after the Watergate break-in, allegedly erased by Nixon’s secretary by mistake, a Bugeater Films and Kyyba Films production – starring Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro – will open theatrically on May 24 in Los Angeles, New York and Omaha, later expanding to other cities.

“[On ‘Bernard and Huey’] our last day of shooting was on the day of the 2016 presidential election. I had a feeling that the word ‘impeachment’ or the echoes of Watergate and Nixon would come back to haunt us,” Mirvish tells Variety.

“When we showed the film at the São Paulo International Film Festival, everyone went: ‘This really reminds us of Bolsonaro!’ In England: ‘This is just like Boris Johnson and the scandal he is going through!’ People read different things into it, but this case proves that politicians face consequences. At least Nixon had the fortitude to know when to quit.”

Combing fact and fiction with the help of screenwriter Daniel Moya, Mirvish – mentored by Robert Altman on his debut feature “Omaha (The Movie)” – decided to go all the way back to 1974, when a government stenographer Connie (Fitzgerald) obtains a tape of Richard Nixon listening to and then erasing the incriminating excerpt. She decides to share it with a reporter, but when they meet, nothing goes according to plan.

“The first thing we found out was that Nixon really did have multiple taping systems in the White House. There are tapes of him listening to his other tapes and fumbling around with the buttons,” he adds.

“Two minutes after the gap [in the actual tapes] Haldeman starts to talk about this movie he saw, ‘The Hot Rock’ with Robert Redford. They make jokes about how it’s about a heist gone wrong, a bit like Watergate. They realized it was a farce. To me, that was an interesting revelation.”

While he turned to many popular theories looking for answers, enlisting Bruce Campbell and Jon Cryer to voice Nixon and Haldeman, Mirvish never intended to change history.

“Compared to how Tarantino does it, where by the end of his movies history is completely rewritten, I introduce fictional characters, but the history stays the same,” he says. Noting the tape acts as a MacGuffin, allowing Connie and Magaro’s Paul to get closer in a quiet motel, accompanied by quirky characters and bossa nova tunes.

“They lose interest in it! They are more interested in each other. It’s a ‘It Happened One Night’ kind of story about two lonely characters coming together in this absurd, farcical way.”

Fitzgerald also didn’t feel the need to “go down the Watergate rabbit hole” in order to prepare for the role.

“This movie is really about suspicion. About not knowing someone, for a lot of reasons and in a lot of different ways,” she says.

Lazy loaded image
18 and a Half Credit: Elle Schneider / 2021, Waterbug Eater Films, LLC

The actor, acclaimed for her turn as no-nonsense Roscoe in “Reacher” and currently at work on the upcoming Netflix miniseries “The Fall of the House of Usher,” created by Mike Flanagan, is drawn to characters that have strong opinions, she admits.

“Connie is certainly direct. She has a lot at stake, a lot to say and a timeline. At the end of the day, what’s most interesting is the dynamic between characters in a scene. That’s why we watch stories. All that research and exploration outside of the script is incredibly important, but you leave your homework at home when you come to the set.”

“We didn’t cast some of these actors right until we started shooting. There was no time for rehearsals, so the reactions that Willa and John have are kind of real,” adds Mirvish.

“Willa is smart and I like working with smart actors. They bring a lot more to the part than just acting chops. She was recommended by [‘Blood Money’ helmer] Lucky McKee, while Kelly Reichardt recommended John.”

Following “First Cow,” Magaro will reunite with Reichardt in Cannes Film Festival main competition title “Showing Up.”

“It’s one of the things I look for in actors: are they recommended by other directors? I knew we would be isolated, so if someone is an asshole, I don’t want to work with them. And nobody was on that film,” he says, also praising the rest of his cast and recalling the struggles brought on by the pandemic.

“I remember when our DGA rep told us we were one of the last remaining productions still shooting in North America. There was this moment of realization: we are in this together, whatever it is. Let’s at least make a great movie and have fun making it.”